WOODBRIDGE — Facing intense pressure from state lawmakers and union representatives, the agency that oversees the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway is delaying a vote on plans to privatize toll collector jobs on both roads.
The New Jersey Turnpike Authority was originally expected to take a vote at its May meeting, but Transportation Commissioner James Simpson announced Tuesday that the process is being slowed down.
Simpson, who chairs the authority’s board, said a decision has been pushed back until the fall, probably in October. At the same time, he noted that the authority has changed the deadline for contractors to submit formal proposals on the privatization plan from May 7 to Aug. 8.
Simpson said the delay is in response to a series of questions from contractors about the complicated proposal. He denied that the authority is bowing to political pressure.
“It was strictly because of the complexity. Why rush it?” Simpson said in an interview after the authority’s monthly board meeting.
Over the past several months, unions representing the toll collectors have been joined by Senate President Stephen Sweeney and other high-profile Democratic lawmakers in denouncing the privatization plan. They contend it will cost toll takers their jobs and result in little or no savings for the authority.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, urged the authority’s board members Tuesday to abandon the proposal. He said it would throw hundreds of toll collectors out of work and save the typical parkway and turnpike commuter only about $1.50 per year.
“Commissioners, my point is that your privatization plan just doesn’t make sense,” said Wisniewski, the chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee. “It doesn’t make sense for the state. It doesn’t make sense for the workers. It doesn’t make sense for your customers. My recommendation is that you do the right thing and scrap it.”
Wisniewski becomes the latest political heavyweight to criticize the toll proposal. He also serves as co-chair of the legislative committee investigating the politically motivated traffic jams last year near the George Washington Bridge orchestrated by former aides to Gov. Chris Christie. The governor has denied any involvement in the scandal.
Controversy over the toll collection plan has created even more political heat for Christie’s Republican administration. Sweeney and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, appeared before the New Jersey Turnpike Authority last month to speak out against the proposal.
On Tuesday, Wisniewski was joined by Assemblywoman Linda Stender, D-Union, Middlesex, Somerset and Assemblyman Dan Benson, D-Mercer, Middesex. Stender and Benson argued that toll collectors have already sacrificed enough and should not have to fear the loss of their jobs.
“It appears the drive is to reduce the salaries for working people who are living on less than $50,000 per year,” Stender said of the toll takers.
Parkway and turnpike toll collectors agreed to salary cuts and other concessions amounting to about $30 million in 2011 to avoid having their jobs privatized then. The issue has resurfaced as both roads look to cut expenses again.
However, Wisniewski, Stender and Benson all argued the savings would be miniscule. They challenged the authority to disclose just how much the agency expects to save before taking a vote.
“I hope you’ll see what we see, that it just doesn’t make sense for New Jersey,” Benson said.
Simpson said any cost savings will become clearer when private contractors submit their proposals to take charge of toll collection. He said he will make up his mind on the plan after he studies the proposals.
“I have to look at the numbers,” Simpson said.
Although the delay in voting does give the toll collectors a temporary reprieve, one union leader said a great deal of uncertainty remains over their jobs. As other union officials have done for months, he called on the authority Tuesday to kill the plan.
“This should end now,” said Kevin McCarthy, president of Local 194 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, the union representing the turnpike’s toll collectors.
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